Senior Jalen Elliott transformed from question mark to answer at safety during Notre Dame career

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — Four years ago, Jalen Elliott knew how to play only two different types of coverage.

As a quarterback and safety at Chesterfield (Va.) L.C. Bird, Elliott had much more responsibility on offense than defense. The previous year, Elliott led L.C. Bird to a Virginia High School League Class 5A state championship. He threw for 2,664 yards and 38 touchdowns in his final two seasons at L.C. Bird.

Defensively, Elliott would either play in a cover one, in which he was left to roam the field as a free safety and react to the play, or cover zero, in which he was given a man-to-man assignment. As for stopping the run, his linebackers would take care of that.

“I had two really good linebackers in Rayshard Ashby, who plays for Virginia Tech, and Isaiah Moore, who plays for NC State,” Elliott said. “I didn’t have to worry about the run. It was like if the ball goes up, J, go get it. If not, they got the run.

“It was definitely a learning curve when I got here.”

Elliott, rated as a three-star recruit, the No. 29 athlete and No. 434 overall in the 2016 class by 247Sports, came to Notre Dame as a raw athlete the Irish wanted to shape into a safety. Rivals had more faith in Elliott and rated him as a four-star recruit and the No. 15 safety in the class.

247Sports looked like the smarter ranking early in Elliott’s Irish career. He played in all 12 games with 14 tackles as a freshman in Notre Dame’s dreadful 4-8 season. But through all the ugliness of the 2016 season, the freshman class knew exactly how it didn’t want the rest of its tenure to go.

“You always have to go through a trial to come out triumphant,” Elliott said. “2016 wasn’t a great year for us. We were thrown into that fire as young boys, and we promised each other that it wouldn’t happen again.

“Once we got into that offseason, it was important for us to work like we didn’t want it to happen again. We set a tone for that. We upheld that tone.”

Elliott broke into the starting lineup and stayed there for 13 games as a sophomore. But his playing time came in large part because of Notre Dame’s desperate need for talent at the position.

Elliott recorded 43 tackles as a full-time starter that sophomore season. He learned that preventing big plays required a great deal of geometry and that mistakes in the running game could be just as costly as blown coverages.

“I was really bad at taking angles and different things like that,” Elliott said. “It definitely took time — learning the speed of the game and making sure that it doesn’t have to be a knockout tackle. Sometimes you just need to down the ball and give the defense a chance to get back on the field and get our feet back planted.”

Last season as a junior, everything started to click for Elliott. He led the Irish with four interceptions. He finished fourth on the team in tackles with 67. He also recorded one tackle for a loss and one forced fumble.

It seemed pretty clear playing safety was the right move for Elliott.

“I never really thought about it like, ‘Oh, this is my one position.’ But I just tried to embrace it,” Elliott said. “I knew that’s what they wanted me to play coming in here, so I tried to embrace it the best that I could and learn as much as I could while I was on the field.”

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Elliott never had grand illusions that he would be a quarterback at Notre Dame, even if he likes to joke with Ian Book about it.

“I knew I wasn’t going to come in and play quarterback. By no means was that what I wanted to do,” Elliott said. “We had a good one in Ian Book.

“I tell him all the time, ‘I think I throw a better spiral,’ but I’ll let him have it for now.”

But the chiding Elliott may give Book doesn’t compare to the heat Notre Dame’s starting quarterback had to endure in the middle of the season and following the embarrassing 45-14 loss at Michigan. Elliott saw the criticism too.

“That’s my quarterback, so I don’t like when that happens,” Elliott said. “At the same time, he handles it great. I don’t know if I could handle it the same way that he does.”

Elliott, who has tallied 37 tackles and two interceptions this season, has shown leadership in his own way as one of the team’s seven captains. Alongside fellow senior captain Alohi Gilman at safety, the pair has embraced bringing along freshman phenom Kyle Hamilton.

“I take great pride in it,” Elliott said. “I had guys like (former ND safety/linebacker) Drue Tranquill that brought me in. It was never really like, ‘Oh, this guy can come in and take over.’ It was more like, ‘Let me help you so you don’t make the same mistakes I made.’

“Me and (Alohi) are huge. We take that very seriously — making sure that they don’t make the same mistakes so they can go and flourish and be as good as possible.”

The lessons don’t just apply to Hamilton — and not just because the former five-star recruit doesn’t need as much guidance as most. Elliott wants to invest time in all the other safeties whether it’s freshman Litchfield Ajavon or former cornerbacks D.J. Brown and Houston Griffith.

“Any time I can help the development of a younger player, I take pride in it, because I was that young player once,” Elliott said. “I was looking for somebody to help me out.

“They don’t have to look. They know I’m there to help them.”

That kind of leadership from the current senior class shows how that group rebounded from an eight-loss season as freshmen to losing only five of the last 36 games since. Those seniors deserve a lot of credit in helping Notre Dame’s program rediscover stability.

It all started with accountability.

“It was never demeaning. We were never really big on cussing each other out or anything like that,” Elliott said. “But we really pushed each other, because we knew where we wanted to go. We knew that everybody had that same goal in mind.”

The goal Saturday will be to beat Boston College (5-5) and send the seniors out with a 18-game winning streak in Notre Dame Stadium. The task won’t be easy. A week after having to slow down the nation’s top rushing attack in Navy, CFP No. 16/AP No. 15 Notre Dame (8-2) has to defend Boston College’s No. 5 ranked running game.

The Eagles enter Saturday averaging 282.2 rushing yards per game with junior AJ Dillon (6-0, 250) and sophomore David Bailey (6-1, 240) forming a powerful combination.

Both Navy and Boston College can churn out rushing yards, but the game plans from defensive coordinator Clark Lea are much different.

“Coach Lea is big on saying, ‘We prepare for a team and then put it back in the box when we’re done.’ It’s no different,” Elliott said of the mindset of moving on to a new opponent. “He has a game plan for us, and we have to go out and execute that.

“We’re going to have to tackle. We’re going to have to gang tackle. It’s going to be a big week for us to come out and play physical, play fast and play for each other.”

Before the 2:30 p.m. EST kickoff on NBC, the Irish will receive a reminder for whom they play. Thirty seniors and graduate students will be honored, cheered by the Notre Dame Stadium crowd and joined by loved ones on the field.

Elliott’s parents will be waiting for him as he leaves the stadium tunnel. So will head coach Brian Kelly. Elliott’s three siblings will be in the stands.

Then it’s back to business. There’s time for reflection later.

“I’m excited for it,” Elliott said. “Just being a senior, being here for four years and kind of embracing that whole thing. It’s so important. Coach Kelly has said it all week. It’s only memorable if you win it.”

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Notre Dame senior safety Jalen Elliott will play his final game in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday.
Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott (left) transformed from a question mark at safety in his sophomore season to an answer in his final two seasons for the Irish.
Notre Dame’s Jalen Elliott (21) during the Notre Dame at Louisville NCAA football game Monday, Sept. 2, 2019 at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky.